Seoullo 7017: Skygarden and the quieting of the architect

In 1968, the literary theorist Roland Barthes published a short and incendiary essay Death of the Author, in which he argued that the intentions of the author ought to be separated from interpretations of the text. The author, he says, ‘is born simultaneously with the text, and is no way supplied with a being which precedes or transcends the writing.’ There is no ‘secret, ultimate meaning’ to the text. Returned to the role of the shaman-poet, the author is merely the ‘performer’, a conduit for language, a ‘tissue of citations’, the result of countless cultural influences. This ‘space of many dimensions’ resists deciphering, cannot be penetrated, and is collected in not the author or the critic, but in the reader, whose experience – feel, interpretation – of the text is all that really matters.  

At the time Death of the Author came out, the backdrop against which Barthes wrote was a tradition largely enamoured with the author as god. ‘The author still rules in manuals of literary history, in biographies on writers, in magazine interviews, and even in the awareness of literary men, anxious to unite… their person and their work.’ Substitute ‘author’ or ‘writer’ for ‘architect’, ‘literary’ for ‘architectural’, and ‘men’ for ‘firms’, and it could just as easily be a commentary on architecture today, and in particular on the spectacle-maker architect, of which the world’s cities have been equally enamoured.    

While it applies to a multitude of developments, Barthes’s call for the birth of the reader is heard especially loud and clear in projects like Seoul’s Skygarden, which resists making a star of its architects, its making the combined design efforts of commissioner, architect, non-government organisations, landscape architects and gardeners, its aim to ‘transform a 1970s highway into a skygarden’, one which returns a previously hard to navigate part of the city to the pedestrian, its 1000 odd-metres helping meld a neighbourhood that had suffered the effects of the twentieth century’s transport revolution. Divided into 600 plus plots planted with 24,000 shrubs, trees and flowers, designed to change with the season, and to evolve over time, and Manga-lit at night, it’s a project that is all about the experience of the user.  

I know it’s a stretch, Barthes’s Death of the Author my gateway to Seoullo 7017, but I do love the quietness with which its Dutch architects MVRDV have gone about their business. Which is not to say there is no voice, but rather that there is no singular authorial voice, and that, echoing Barthes’s championing of the shaman, the maker is much more conduit for the experience of the Seoullo 7017 than it is the architect of that experience. Indeed, if anyone is to speak, then it must be this garden in the sky, and in the voice not of its architects, but in the many that use it.    


Image Credit: Ossip van Duivenbode (Main Header Image / Featured Image)